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SUNY Punishes Professor Flatly Because of His Protected Speech

I have been working in this field for a long time now, and I would like to say that nothing surprises me anymore, but today’s release about a college professor denied promotion explicitly because of his outside writings criticizing the university’s student conduct code, affirmative action, and student conduct policies is really something else.

I am not exactly shocked that a public university would engage in viewpoint discrimination against a professor or student for voicing unpopular opinions. Sadly, this happens all too often. Nor am I particularly surprised that a professor was denied a promotion because of his political point of view—I receive frequent reports of this behavior.

What is surprising, though, is that a university president would be foolish enough to specifically reference a professor’s writings in a signed letter as a reason that he was denied a promotion! Further, I have never even heard of a university president demanding that a professor submit all of his writing to a prior review committee. Prior restraint has been considered incompatible with a free society since the time of John Milton! How could a university president be so ignorant of First Amendment law, the principles of academic freedom, or even just the basic role of dissent in a free society?

FIRE does not ordinarily become involved in promotion or tenure issues. The primary reason we do not is that the decisions are usually made confidentially and the committees are usually smart enough not to specifically cite a professor’s protected outside expression as a reason for denying a promotion. We have always, however, left open the possibility that we would become involved if there was a “smoking gun” clearly indicating that the refusal to promote an otherwise qualified professor was based on his political views. Well, guns don’t get much smokier than this!

If academia wishes to flourish, professors need to feel that they are free to express their points of view, to point out problems and shortcomings within the university, and to suggest remedies. President Hefner’s actions in this case demonstrate that he has no understanding of the basics of living in a free society, let alone running a university that is supposed to be dedicated to the open exchange of ideas. President Hefner should lose his job over this.

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